Shirin Neshat captures the faces of the Arab Spring riots

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud 1
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Introduction

The Gladstone Gallery and the Faurschou Foundation in Beijing, China are just some of the art spaces that have had the pleasure of exhibiting Shirin Neshat’s The Book of Kings. The exhibition consisted of a total of 56 black and white photos framed in unmated and black frames that were hung across the two galleries. Neshat, “persona non grata” in Iran due to her art, created the photographs to reference a broad array of important and modern political metaphors.

What inspired Shirin Neshat?

Shirin’s exhibit was motivated by the series of political uprisings, now commonly known as the Arab Spring, which took place throughout different Arab countries between 2011 and 2012. The Book of Kings explored the causal conditions of power within social and cultural structures in the modern society. The title of the installation was inspired by the 60,000-verse historical poem known as Shahnameh1 or the Book of Kings in English. 11th-century poet Ferdowsi2 created the ancient poem that inspired the title of the exhibition, and it chronicled the history of Iran throughout its 7th century Islamic conquest of Persia3.

History, politics, and poetry in one exhibition

Managing to interweave history, politics, and poetry in one exhibition, Shirin Neshat was able to set the series against the backdrop of the Arab Spring perfectly. Just as Ferdowsi cast the Islamic conquest of Persia as a catastrophe, Neshat’s photographs were also created to commemorate the masses of unknown citizens who sacrificed themselves to see justice and political freedom upheld across many Arab and Middle East countries.

Shirin Neshat’s photographs

Shirin Neshat’s photographs consisted of three groups of large-scale black and white pictures; hand annotated pictures with poetry, and pictures featuring prison writings that had been done in Farsi calligraphy. These three groups of photographs represented the villains, the patriots, and the public that participated in the Arab Spring riots.

Shirin Neshat in her studio working on Roja from "The Book of Kings"
Shirin Neshat in her studio working on Roja from The Book of Kings

The portraits

The portraits were hung in a grid covering a whole wall. The portraits featured head shots of both serious looking men and women. The subjects represented the nuances of group emotion during the riots from aspiration and resignation to hope and uncertainty.

‘The Patriots’

Unlike the villains’ section, the patriot segment featured torso-level portraits of young subjects placing their hands over their chests. The expressions on these subjects were more intense to include expressions of defiance, pride, and even hatred. The calligraphic elements on the skin of these subjects were larger and bolder as if shouting the expressions rather than whispering them.

Shirin Neshat – Salah (Patriots), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatSalah (Patriots), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat - Sara Khaki (Patriots), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatSara Khaki (Patriots), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat – Roja (Patriots), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatRoja (Patriots), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat - Muhammed (Patriots), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatMuhammed (Patriots), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat - Nida (Patriots), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatNida (Patriots), 2012, from The Book of Kings

‘The Villains’

Lastly, the villains’ category of the series consisted of pictures of older men. The calligraphic details were elaborate and were placed across the bare chest of the male subjects like tattoos. Observed together, all three categories represented metaphors, symbols, and emotions that accompany political movements like the Arab Spring.

Shirin Neshat – Amir (Villians), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatAmir (Villains), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat – Sherief (Villains), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatSherief (Villains), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat – Bahram (Villains), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatBahram (Villains), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat - Detail of Bahram (Villians), from Book of Kings
Shirin Neshat – Detail of Bahram (Villains), 2012, from The Book of Kings

‘The Masses’

Shirin Neshat - Mana (Masses), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatMana (Masses), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat - Salah (Masses), 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatSalah (Masses), 2012, from The Book of Kings

Shirin Neshat - Sara Nafisi, 2012, from Book of Kings
Shirin NeshatSara Nafisi, 2012, from The Book of Kings

Exhibition photos

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

Shirin Neshat - Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo by Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Shirin Neshat – Installation view of The Book of Kings at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud/faurschou.com

All images by Shirin Neshat/gladstonegallery.com unless otherwise noted.

Video: An encounter with artist Shirin Neshat

25min 50sec

Shirin Neshat supports the Iranian opposition, loves contradictions and sees herself as a freedom fighter who uses the weapons of art against the oppression of Islamic women.

Related works

Related readings

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shahnameh
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdowsi
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_conquest_of_Persia
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